Holocaust's untold heroes
Their story is rarely told, but Albanian Muslims took in fleeing Jews during World War II, saving thousands of lives
By SHAHZADA IRFAN
Aug. 28, 2009, 10:47PM
Julie Koehn For the Chronicle
The Holocaust Museum Houston is displaying photographs and stories of Albanians who rescued Jews during World War II. The project by Norman Gershman is an attempt to build bridges between Muslims and Jews.
• Exhibit: Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews During the Holocaust
• Where: Holocaust Museum Houston
• When: Through February
• Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
• Cost: Free
• Information: www.hmh.org
When no other European country dared to withstand the wrath of Nazi Germany, it was the Muslims of Albania who saved a large number of Jewish people from extermination.
Albania, a Muslim majority country in Europe, opened its borders during World War II and took in thousands of Jews fleeing from different countries. They were treated like honored guests, and many were given fake names and even passports.
This little-known chapter of history is the focus of the photographic exhibition Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews During the Holocaust , which kicked off in July at the Holocaust Museum Houston and continues through February.
The exhibition displays photographs taken by Norman Gershman, a Jewish photographer based in Colorado, who traveled to Albania in 2003 to research the topic.
Gershman said it took him six years to complete the project. He interviewed Albanians who had harbored Jewish people at that time and were still alive and the relatives of those who were not. He took their photographs to accompany their individual stories in his book Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews During World War II.
The photographs and stories displayed at the exhibition are taken from this book.
Everyone had a different story to tell, but one thing was common.
“They were compelled to act the way they had by Besa, a code of honor deeply rooted in Albanian culture and incorporated in the faith of Albanian Muslims,” Gershman said.
He said they were dismissive of the attention they were getting.
“To them it was nothing unusual,” he said. “They believed any Albanian would have done the same in a similar situation.”
Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel, is the sponsor of this traveling exhibition.
Marci Dallas, director of Changing Exhibits at the Holocaust Museum Houston, said the exhibition gives the message that no one should stand by during human suffering.
Eileen Reed, a visitor to the exhibit, was surprised how different people could decipher teachings of their faith differently.
“The Albanian Muslims derived inspiration from their religion to save Jews,” she said. “They were so different from those who perpetrate violence in the name of the same religion.”
These stories have remained unknown for decades, even to students of the Holocaust. Rob Satloff, director of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy in Washington, D.C., offers an explanation.
“First, we — Jews, Israelis, Western historians — didn't look very hard,” Satloff said. “And second, they — Arabs and Muslims, even those who rescued Jews — often did not want to be found. The result is a tacit conspiracy of silence about this lost chapter from the Holocaust.”
Satloff wrote the book Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach into Arab Lands.
Ellen Kennedy, interim director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, believes these stories remained untold because many surviving Jews and Albanians were reluctant to share them.
“When survivors first began speaking about their experiences in the years immediately after the war, they were met with disbelief,” Kennedy said. “The public simply could not imagine that such horrors occurred.”
Gershman's work is an attempt at building bridges between Muslims and people of Jewish faith.
“Islam and Judaism are Abrahamic faiths, and we have lot of things in common,” said Dr. Aziz Siddiqui, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston. “We must strive to highlight these as Gershman has done and avoid everything that tends to divide us.”firstname.lastname@example.org